Orange growers see bigger fruit, smaller yield

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First pick expected to be later than usual, hope for cool nights

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO -- Navel orange groves in California are expected to yield about 88 million cartons in the upcoming season, down from nearly 94 million cartons in 2010-11, according to a government report.

A survey by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service indicated an average fruit set per tree of 318, below the five-year average of 353.

However, growers are seeing larger fruit sizes than they did at this point last year, said Bob Blakely, director of industry relations for the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

"If you look at the number of fruit per tree, I think it was down 25 percent," Blakely said. "But having a size that's 6 or 7 percent larger makes up a lot of that difference. We'll probably be 8 or 10 percent lighter than last year."

NASS' prediction was based on a survey done from July 15 to Sept. 2. It took into account such variables as fruit set and diameter, trees per acre, bearing acreage and oranges per box.

A yield of 88 million boxes -- each weighing about 40 pounds -- would still top the nearly 81 million cartons picked in 2009-10. That crop two seasons ago was considered one of the best ever in terms of utility, as more than 80 percent of the oranges picked were suitable to be sold as fresh.

However, success among growers last season varied widely in large part because of weather. Last season's overall utilization rate was between 67 percent and 70 percent.

The navel orange harvest typically begins at mid-autumn and continues until the following summer. This year, growers expect to pick their first fruit in late October or early November -- a slightly later start than some years, Blakely said.

Seeing good size at this point in the oranges' development is encouraging, he said. The weather up to now has been "almost ideal," although growers would like to start seeing nights cool down a bit to bring out the color.

"That's what we battled all year last year until the middle of the spring when we benefited from some of that rain," he said. "We started off with small sizes last year.

"Overall the quality looks good," he said. "Most people I'm talking to are optimistic about the coming season."

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